Turns out, power is something worth discussing, even if you thought Who Governs? explained that troublesome bogeyman away. Get out your Gramsci, Fanon, Reuther, Niebuhr, Foucault, Said and Anderson, put on a pot of coffee and theorize Blackwater, Bechtel, Halliburton and The Carlyle Group. As an incipient, lacksadaisical political scientist, I’d say the film lacked an additional layer of complexity and subtlety by missing the role played by NGO’s and nonprofit corporations mining a lucrative third way. Why bother with shadowy front operations when the money can be funneled back and forth between well-meaning third parties?
From a moviegoing perspective, Syriana does things that confuses Americans (read: non-ideological thinkers) by violating certain principles of fairness which automatically subverts the exoticist rampage storyline. This is Melville and Conrad territory, albeit less poetic, suspended in a value neutral vacuum. This is beyond good and evil; these are tactical losses and collateral damage, tit for tat. Finally a metaphor for the movements of portfolio capital, embodied in the several persons animating the drama.
Unlike Moore, Gaghan and Clooney (channeling something he must have learned under David O. Russell) conspire to create a nearly unimpeachable political film, so restrained it can’t be considered exciting or suspenseful or any of the Oscar-worthy blurb cliches that will doubtless be imputed to it. Syriana refutes Soderbergh’s hamfisted lecture on the war on drugs and complicates matters by presenting a story in which allegiances change, lessons are learned and time overlaps, rather than evolving from one point through an arc, creating a story rife with coincidence and stinking with serendipity. Unlike the revelations of Medium Cool, Syriana’s message breaks across faces with the same grim realization undergone by the executioner in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, not out of enlightenment, but painful necessity.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Incident unravels like an Albee-an nightmare, as if his stuff weren’t nightmarish enough. From the moment the film begins, the characters pouring in to their own Manhattan Transfer, each with a tiny narrative of their own, we get a grandiose prisoner’s dilemma (or collective action problem) in which we see the worst of humanity in acts of high cowardice. This is the stuff of the real Calvin and Hobbes.
The Incident pits randomly selected individuals against two menacing hooligans. The hostages come from all walks of life and somehow the criminals suss something about each individual that paralyzes the others with fear. It’s a vulgar Freudian nightmare at cross purposes with Darwin — sexuality and power are in the fore and these wounded animals can’t defend themselves adequately, leaving the cats to play with the mice before they kill them.
It’s a powerful film. Deeply naturalistic, this is McTeague without the money; the criminals have figuratively chained themselves to the car, at once putting them in a position of strength and weakness. Spectacularly cruel, The Incident seems like an answer to Elia Kazan’s so-called do-gooder politics, Peerce thumbing his nose at those who believe collective action to be inherently red, or inherently anything. Equally interesting is that this film could be remade, set in the eighties, before any notion of “quality of life” crime and other police vocabulary had yet to be created and the legendary, pre-Giuliani New York that was mythologized as the province of junkie warlords and gangbangers, open to the promise of a police state.
This perverse Dickensian tale has the makings of a modern day Christmas classic: a morality play gone awry in almost too many ways to count, with a Scrooge who realizes that even if he’s generous, the bank account’s still full. There’s Christmas past, present and future, all rolled into one icy rainstorm as a Benz whisks Cusack from tense to tense.
If it sounds like another maudlin Christmas movie to you and if you’ve had enough of The Christmas Story to last a lifetime, consider this: Cusack plays a mob lawyer involved in a “perfect crime,” partnered with Billy Bob Thornton as the muscle guy with motivation. Set in Kansas, we’re made aware of the contradictions at play; you can almost hear Sen. Brownback chiding his congregation, ahem, constituency against the evils portrayed herein. This is the other Kansas — one that was left behind as rock ’n’ roll moved out of Kansas City for Detroit, New York and Los Angeles. The political ambiguity still allows for a critique of greed and hypocrisy, something Daniel Kasman notes in his review.
Ramis returns to a familiar theme: small town claustrophobia. But unlike Groundhog Day, the danger in Wichita Falls is as palpable as it is inevitable. As Cusack skirts the cops and his would-be killer, we learn how desperate everyone is to escape; think of a thousand toasters dropped into a thousand bathtubs in the name of existential freedom. But for Cusack and his company, there are no easy outs.
If The Pardoner’s Tale were a Christmas comedy or Groundhog Day a noir soaked in rain and bourbon, then The Ice Harvest would be a brown paper bag waiting for you Christmas morning beneath the tree, decorated with blood red ribbon.
This is more than just good news. As I wrote here, this is a promising film, but as usual Laserlight couldn’t have done any worse with handling and presenting it. I have some details regarding the forthcoming Criterion release, but they’re unfortunately not at my immediate disposal. Actually, they’re already published!
There’s probably no more overlooked figure in my knowledge of film than Woody Allen. He’s always been on my radar; I saw Sleeper as a pre-teen and knew immediately that his was a sense of humor and a sensibility I could automatically appreciate. Annie Hall too. Maybe I thought that said too much about me, but this could be some Carly Simon psychobabble about overwraught, intellectual narcissicists.
So it was after seeing Manhattan that I completely fell in love with Allen as a filmmaker. I can think of few examples where someone can not only tell a beautiful story in such a self-contained, self-absorbed manner. And it’s educational! Allen keeps no secrets about his influences and his films always point to cinematic history. His appreciation for Bergman in Manhattan is not only a metaphor but also a compliment.
In fact, it’s to Allen’s credit that he can so lightheartedly present audiences with film lectures while telling a story at the same time. It’s good because there has to be some way for moviegoers who aren’t neurotic, self-loathing Jewish New Yorkers to identify with his characters. Those caricatures are what people find funny — these reified distortions sometimes look like cartoons not people and not monsters — making it easier to come to grips with the story itself, which might be painful in ways that hit too close to home.
This has led me to buy Woody Allen Collection Vol. 1 and digest it immediately. For 49 bucks it seemed too good to pass up.